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Dr Philip Jones, Senior Curator, Department of Anthropology, South Australian Museum, 30 September 2014

TIM BONYHADY: When we were organising today it looked at one point as if Philip Jones might be in Europe and we were a bit anxious with the idea of having two video recordings back-to-back. We thought that might be pushing things a bit far. We were incredibly relieved and delighted when it turned out that Philip would be able to be here rather than on a different continent. He really needs no introduction. I think that his book Ochre and Rust is one of the great pieces of Australian cultural history and we’re very lucky to have him today. Please welcome Philip Jones. [applause]

PHILIP JONES: Thank you very much. I’m going to be talking about a suite of material which Andrew [Sayers] really put on the record in his ground-breaking book Aboriginal Artists of the Nineteenth Century. It was a collection that we’d had at the museum and been hidden from view for many years.

We first published it in Dreamings: the art of Aboriginal Australia in 1988 but we could only put a very few images into that publication. Andrew put a few more on the record - larger images and more accessible - and considered them in this broader context in which we discussing the works today. One of the key contributions of that book from my research was the range of material which was suddenly spread out, the depth and the fact that you could scrutinise particular images. There is still so much to learn about these images and the Dawn of Art. Every now and again I’ve dipped back into it, particularly in the last few weeks, and I think it’s probably left me more confused than enlightened. Maybe some of that confusion and enlightenment can flow across the podium.

That’s a key image [image shown]. It’s not a very good image but it’s the only one that the Museum of Victoria could give me with short notice. This gives you an idea of the seven of these panels. We now know there were seven. When Andrew did the book we didn’t really know how many there were, and until a week ago I thought there were just six panels. But I believe there was seven and actually a total of 47 sheets of drawings.

On the count that I’ve made of the 24 sheets that we know of today, there are some 274 individual images of which more than 250 are animals, a very small number of human figures in that number, and only five or six items of material culture including two or three canoes, three or four tomahawks and about ten pieces of vegetation.

If we go back to the frame that you see there, which was the original frame that these works were displayed in just a few years, maybe even months, after they were drawn in 1888 at the Melbourne Centennial Exhibition. The organiser of that exhibition for the Northern Territory, which was, I should remind you, the Northern Territory of South Australia, was JG Knight. This is partly why the collection is best represented in South Australia, because after the exhibition he saw his role as distributing the material. He distributed four of the seven panels, as far as we know, into South Australia to the School of Mines and the Technological Museum.

This is an interesting point. Andrew made the point in the book that a lot of this material, these drawings, made their way into libraries or institutions of one sort or another and never really into art galleries. The secondary effect was their absorption into galleries in the twentieth century. Looking at these images now 20 years later - and this was an image that Andrew didn’t know about when the book was done; it turned up in the Museum of Victoria and unfortunately has been removed from the frame - that’s another story – many questions are raised.

Who were these artists?

What does the knowledge about them tell us about the dawn of a particular form of art- I would say, Aboriginal art under European eyes? I think that’s the genre that maybe we’re seeing.

At what point does Aboriginal art cease being wholly reflective of a society which draws its references from its own traditions and conventions and begins reflecting aspects of a new relationship?

What effect does access to new materials, paper and crayons or pencil, have on traditional art and its traditional parameters?

What effect does this new capacity to trace fine lines to produce delicate shading to add new colors, what effects does that have?

And to what extent does the suite of artworks that we’ll see here reflect the original intent or preferences of the artist?

Did JG Knight already know that these drawings would be placed behind a trophy exhibit of weapons in the Centennial exhibition and that natural history would be the most appealing component for the exhibition?

Was that his direction or was this the artists’ own initiative?

We have documentation of the first moment when crayons and brown paper were distributed to men of the Pintubi, Ngadadjara, Pitjantjatjara, Warlpiri, Alyewarre and other groups by Norman Tindale and Robert Pulleine during the 1930s. By our own late twentieth century and early twenty-first century conventions of art scholarship, these men, not Tindale and Pulleine but the Aboriginal men because they were men to whom these crayons and brown paper were distributed, became artists during that first session with the materials. In the morning of that day they weren’t artists; by the evening they were. They sat alone working on these drawings but in a group, almost within touching distance of each other.

Just as we’ve seen in Charles Mountford’s documentation of bark paintings during the 1948 Arnhem Land expedition, each absorbed in their own subjects but connected. Was it always like that? Was it like that with the Dawn of Art? These drawings contain intriguing indications that the artists were, to some extent at least, looking over each other’s shoulders arriving at essentially similar sets of subjects. Or were they being steered in that direction by JG Knight?

Were these in fact all prison drawings by prisoners as the documentation and the reportage of the exhibition ran? According to Knight they were all prison drawings by prisoners incarcerated in what had only really just been built, the Fannie Bay jail, which is still standing taking over from previously very crammed quarters in the Palmerston jail.

We know that at least one of the artists, or I think we do know, was never imprisoned. His name was Davey but also Patty, I think, was never imprisoned or, if he was, it was for a night or perhaps two days for stealing grog.

Biliamuk [or Billiamook] was imprisoned. He was in and out of Fannie Bay quite often but he was also the groundsman and he spent time in the vicinity. Wandy Wandy was definitely in prison. He was in prison for murder twice, and the second time he was hanged in 1891. Jemmy Miller, who I have to admit to being my favourite, showing evidence of the disease ‘yaws’, he was in prison for murder of a white man for stealing one of the women.

I thought I’d put that up just so that you can familiarise yourself with these people [image shown]. These are all images taken more or less at the same time as the drawings. They were all taken by inspector Paul Foelsche, who was another very interesting character on the northern frontier.

To the drawings - I want to skim through them. Having already expressed my preference, I can go straight to the person that I think is the least impressive as an artist, and that is Biliamuk. If we only had his work to go by, I think we’d be absolutely besotted with it and fall in love with it. But I find it stilted, clumsy. I think he’s unfamiliar with the implements that he’s got. But nevertheless there’s this vividness about it. It’s dynamic. He is putting things before us that we never thought we would see in that way.

He is also using blue in an interesting way - blue which appears in the rock art of the region. It appears Reckitts blue on the artefacts of the region at this time in a form like ochre powder. In Reckitts blue you could bang it and knock it and crush it and it would turn into ochre in terms of its consistency, a very attractive colour which had not been encountered ever before. Suddenly there’s a blue pencil available. It gets used in all of these pictures.

But again every picture raises an issue. What’s happening there? We know that the captions have been put there probably by JG Knight in Larakia [or Larrakiah] and in English and they are all regular; they are all facing down. But of course the animals are not amenable to that and some of them are completely upside down. What that means is that the artist is turning the paper around as he is drawing. That raises all sorts of questions about where these pictures were made and what was the actual mode of production? Why are they all spaced over to the right? Was there an intention to fill the whole sheet or not? We see the old syndrome of the crocodile with a bent tail crammed up against the edge, and so on, all of these elements.

Biliamuk is extraordinary as well for creating these figures which are just not precedented. We don’t see them elsewhere. This four-headed god, as it’s described. Not much analysis, almost no analysis, has been done of the Larakia terms. That’s still ahead of us to try to analyse. Is that the name of a figure? Is it a name of a Larakia ancestor which has slipped off the edge and we will never know what it is? Does it bear any relationship with another term?

The figure at the bottom looks initially as weird as the figure at the top, but it’s actually an upside down tree. The trunk of the tree is facing down and the roots are above it. There were just two Biliamuk pictures in the Dawn of Art series that we have at the South Australian museum.

This is the third one, which is in the Museum of Victoria, and is sort of an inferior image. Again you see the crocodile. You would have to think that artist has started at the top and has misjudged where he’d end up, but we don’t really know that. This very large centipede at the top that appears, it’s a reminder that these are people working on the fringe of the coast. They’re mangrove people basically, the Larakia, I suppose.

One of the most extraordinary things that you see through this collection are winged birds or birds with wings in flight or outstretched. Are they dead birds lying down with their wings askew or is this actually an attempt to put a bird in motion?

The second image in the Museum of Victoria series, and again the blue. I think that’s also called God, that one. With some of the work that we were looking at earlier from south-eastern Australia with headdresses, I don’t know which artist it was, you can see again this convention of putting a headdress with multiple elements to it. We assume that’s what it is.

Just to refer back to the next artist, the Larakia artist Davie, who is in the centre. He really contributed most of the drawings to the series as we know it at the moment. He’s a completely different artist - fluid, elegant, attention to symmetry, detail and colour, spacing on the page all very regular and in really good control of the pencil.

Again, what’s happening with that human figure, the body designs which are curving up over the shoulder? Is that an attempt to indicate what they look like on the back? In other words, like an early Kellogg’s cornflakes cut-out type of figure? Could you fold those down over the back and create the figure? Are you meant to imagine that or is that actually something coming off the body? These are just idle questions.

You can see once again the delineation of the wings coming down the cockatoo with the little blue eyes and blue beak. When you look at the figures closely, they are delineated in red and then the pencil is filled in - not all of them are in red, but generally you can get an impression when you go closely into them that this is what’s happening. Then you see the bird, once again with an irresistible conclusion that it’s in flight - but is it?

Davie again, this time with the blue pencil that he has, and various figures. Again this attention to the delineation of the outside. A couple of leeches there and a centipede - once again a reminder of the coastal proximity.

Then another sheet. On some sheets people are just working with one pencil, three pencils or two pencils - seemingly no more than that. One of the rare examples of one with elements of material culture, and again you wonder how far that artist might have gone in European terms once you see that beautifully-drawn picture of the canoe and the figures.

Also he’s exploring a theme on a single sheet of paper with the palm trees and their fruit with the elongated extension of the fruit in the top one there. And then also the discovery that you can begin shading, you can begin using that pencil to create a variation in effect.

Now to my favorite - Jemmy. He really knew what to do with shading, I think. Also you saw in some of the south-eastern works this sort of banding effect across the bodies of animals and you can see it here in what you might say from the distance is a kangaroo. But if you look at the teeth and then maybe have a closer look at the feet and the inscription, it’s a dingo.

The idea of repetition, the banded effect again, and there’s the shading with those five brogans or native companions - quite extraordinary, I think. Also ducks and the old bent-tailed crocodile. What I think is happening on the top right is a top view and a lower view of a crocodile. He’s actually turned the crocodile over.

Scooting ahead, that’s the Museum of Victoria image from that series.

There’s Paddy with very unresolved fish. [laughter] He never really gets better at those, but again you see that banding.

You begin to develop an idea of an aesthetic, which is maybe a localised one but it could be spread out across the country and it’s disappeared from view. It’s only Andrew’s book and the work that we’re doing now that is bringing this back to the surface, because we’ve all been overwhelmed by dots and concentric circles, haven’t we?

But this is an aesthetic which was operating. It is illustrative, as a previous speaker said. It’s not necessarily telling a story, and we shouldn’t look for that and these are not necessarily totemic animals, I’m quite sure, they’re just observations. People are freeing themselves up with these pencils in a way that they couldn’t before without a flat surface and this sort of paper to work on.

And finally Wandy Wandy with just three images on a single sheet - three beautiful kangaroos with the lines that extend all the way down the body, just a single line through the body but again outlined in red with the forms delineated.

JG Knight, the person who put it all together, was a quite eccentric and very interesting fellow, and I’ll finish by quoting something that was put into his obituary. Someone remembered him standing by the work and selecting the worst effort of the whole in the Centennial exhibition and then JG Knight parodied the lines of Thomas Gray’s Elegy on a Country Churchyard. The verse from the original poem reads:

Let not Ambition mock their useful toil, Their homely joys, and destiny obscure; Nor Grandeur hear with a disdainful smile, The short and simple annals of the poor.

Knight wrote, or said apparently - uttered, ad-libbed:

Let not the critic mock their art grotesque, Their pigments few, and drawing incorrect; I tell you that this work is picturesque, And, for it, praise unstinted I expect.

That was his poem recast on the Dawn of Art, an indication that he understood the reservations people might have about the work but he did a very brave thing:- he stuck this stuff right up before the Australian public where 40,000 people saw it. There were seven reviews, five of them were effusive in praise for these works and only slightly facetious, I found. He stood by the works and believed that they were significant, and luckily we have traced at least half of them and maybe have a chance of finding the rest. Thanks. [applause]

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Date published: 12 December 2014

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